In carefully choreographed moves to send a signal to China, “bilateral meetings” with leaders from all quadrilateral countries were held, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi met counterparts Shinzo Abe of Japan and Malcolm Turnbull of Australia on Tuesday, a day after he met US President Donald Trump. By afternoon, Modi also had a “pull-aside” meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the leaders’ lounge in Manila where leaders had gathered for the East Asia Summit. At the ASEAN-India Summit, meanwhile, the Prime Minister promised “steady support” for “a rules-based regional security architecture”.
Asked about the bilateral meetings, Raveesh Kumar, official spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, said the Prime Minister had met many leaders at the lounge over the last two days, and Li was one of them.
“Nobody (no official) was there,” he said, indicating that they did not have a readout of the conversation between the two leaders. But in a tweet, he said the leaders were in “deep conversation”.
Sources told The Indian Express, “We don’t want to be the flag-bearers of the quadrilateral grouping… but a sense of solidarity has been conveyed through these bilateral meetings.”
Officials of the quadrilateral grouping had met on Sunday after the idea of a leaders-level meeting was dropped.
In a tweet, Turnbull described his meeting with Modi as “productive” and said discussions focused on increased economic cooperation, security and counter-terrorism.
Preeti Saran, Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs, said Turnbull and Modi “exchanged views on the situation in the region”. Similarly, in the bilateral meeting with Abe, the leaders exchanged notes about “security” and regional issues.
A Japanese statement, however, made it clear that Abe and Modi discussed “Indo-Pacific”. “Abe said that he would like to see the potential Indo-Japan relationship bloom in full scale and achieve free and open Indo-Pacific based on rule of law” — a strong indication that the conversation also touched upon China’s assertive activities in the region.
Sources said that at both bilateral meetings, leaders discussed the “strategic landscape”, which is being seen as an oblique reference to the quadrilateral meeting and the Indo-Pacific region. “While the quadrilateral process is underway at the official level, the leaders did not discuss the issues in great detail,” sources said.
The Prime Minister’s meetings with Abe and Turnbull came a day after he held “very expansive” talks with President Trump on intensifying overall security and defence cooperation, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. On Sunday, India, Australia, Japan and the US held their first meeting — after a false start in 2007 in Manila — to take forward the quadrilateral grouping, in a bid to keep the Indo-Pacific region “free and open”.
“My friend @AbeShinzo and I had an excellent meeting in Manila. We reviewed the ground covered on various aspects of India-Japan ties and discussed ways to deepen cooperation between our economies and people,” Modi tweeted. MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said the two leaders had a “wide ranging and engaging” discussion on “intensifying” the Special Strategic and Global Partnership between the two countries. Last month, Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Tokyo favours the quadrilateral dialogue to further boost strategic partnership among the four countries, and set the ball rolling for the quadrilateral meeting after ten years.
On his talks with Turnbull, Modi said he was delighted to meet the Australian Prime Minister and that their discussions added new vigour to the friendship between the two countries.
In his address at the ASEAN-India Summit, Modi strongly advocated for the setting up of a rules-based regional security architecture in the Indo-Pacific region. He said that maritime links established thousands of years ago between India and ASEAN countries have enabled trade relations and that they have to work closely to further strengthen them.
“India assures the ASEAN of its steady support towards achieving a rules-based regional security architecture that best attests to the region’s interests and its peaceful development,” he said.
This was in the context of China claiming sovereignty over the South China Sea where several ASEAN member countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, have counter claims.
India has stressed on safe and secure navigation in the Indo-Pacific region and called for adherence to rule of law and international obligation, including respect for UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).